On Free Will and why you should- no, must- Ardently Believe in it as Averred by Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
From the beginnings of the philosophical era in places as culturally varied and geopolitically disparate as Greece, China, and Mesopotamia, scholars have grappled with the concept and existence (or lack thereof) of free will. With it, we are able to influence our destinies, and without it, we resign ourselves to fate. Many academics are deeply concerned with the apathy that would accompany a belief in determinism, as our laws and ethical codes which rely on the Christian tradition of moral liberty- the capacity to discern and pursue the good, instead of merely being compelled by instinct and desire- assume that we can freely choose between “right and wrong”. These themes have been analyzed in literary periods as vast and ideologically dissonant as the Renaissance era to the Modernist period, and subsequently, many postmodern novels have attempted to tackle the meanings of these revelations. Several contemporary American postmodern novels like Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Delillo’s White Noise approached reality as nihilistic and deterministic- in The Crying of Lot 49, paranoia and circular literary imagery augment the author’s reluctant faith in inescapable fate, while the characters in White Noise approach their inevitable deaths with dread and consternation. However, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five ideologically diverged from peer literature in that it was a thought experiment about determinism, rather than an impassioned declaration of its existence. I contend that Vonnegut believes that reality is inherently deterministic, but asserts that we should ardently believe in the illusion of free will so that there is an incentive to act altruistically, which is furthered through Vonnegut’s peculiarly abstract treatment of trauma.
To begin, I will first provide a few key definitions, and then I will relate them to the postmodern literary movement. Causal determinism is the belief that “every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (Hoefer). Deterministic philosophy was mainly forwarded by the Greek Presocratics Heraclitus, Leucippus, and the Stoics as a counter-argument to the concept of free will, which has been argued for centuries by philosophers and great thinkers as prominent and varied by time as Kant, Descartes, and Plato. While it is difficult to pinpoint where, exactly, the written and/or oral definition and concept of free will originated, we do know from the thousands of agglomerated works of both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions that, very broadly, it encompasses the idea that it is a “canonical designator for a significant kind of control over one’s actions” (O’Conner and Franklin). While there are innumerable contentions as to the particular nature of both terms, the topical definitions that have been provided are suitable enough to analyze Slaughterhouse-Five at a surface level in relation to the argument forwarded in this paper. Slaughterhouse-Five was written in the contemporary postmodern literary period following the second world war, which encompassed works of writing as profound as Pale Fire and Waiting for Godot, forwarding themes ranging from paranoia, fragmentation, and irony, to the negative influences of capitalism and most importantly, existential anxiety. Vonnegut’s piece de resistance argued against the common assertion advocated for by his peers that the human condition was marked by determinism and the proper response was a moral framework that was existentially nihilist in nature. Conceptually, determinism should lead to moral nihilism, and Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as a means of combatting what he saw as an inevitable moral malaise when confronted with mounting and incontrovertible empirical evidence against the existence of free will. He derived this argument from his time spent in WW2, witnessing the demoralization, trauma, and resignation of his fellow soldiers in the aftermath of the conflict, and proposed a positive solution to an issue that society had (and has) willfully and blissfully ignored.
Slaughterhouse-Five, at its core, is a novel about the human costs of war. And these issues manifest themselves in plot lines as varied as alien abductions and time travel in order to approach crucial arguments on morality and death. The main character Billy Pilgrim is used to explore various themes about concepts as myriad and complex as predetermination and the effects of war. Vonnegut’s tragic war experiences in Dresden during the second world war led him to write a novel on the horrors and tragedies of war and he utilized his authorial connection to his characters to discuss human reactions to death and traumatic events; he uses his characters, in particular, Billy Pilgrim, as a vehicle to communicate his beliefs. Vonnegut also brings to question the ideas of free will and predestination as displayed by the main character, Billy, who maintains a deep and unabiding belief in determinism as a result of his encounters with the Tralfamadorians and by extension, war trauma. While most postmodern war novels authored during Vonnegut’s career exceedingly focused on the immediate violence and the poetic action of such conflict, Slaughterhouse-Five concentrates on an oft-avoided, yet integral aspect of war- the emotional aftermath.
During the first half of the novel, the narrator introduces the reader to various parts of Billy Pilgrims life in a fragmented, unchronological order due to a supernatural ability gifted to him by the Tralfamadorian aliens that allows him to skip forwards and backwards to various moments in his life. Billy refers to these time travel moments as becoming “unstuck” as he is literally uprooted from whatever moment he is currently living in against his will and transported to a place and time not of his choosing. The first time Billy Pilgrim experienced his ability to involuntarily time travel was while “World War II was in progress… He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends,” trapped by an intangible force with only the ability to witness (Vonnegut 25). Billy Pilgrim’s resignation to fate during an act that is essentially deterministic is quite ironic, and propounds the author’s belief in determinism (Tally 4). At the beginning of the novel, Billy Pilgrim had a comparatively positive outlook on his ability to determine his own fate and choices. However, as the war progresses, and he crosses the increasingly barren Eastern Front, he begins to question himself and his ability to influence his own life. When Russian soldiers capture Billy Pilgrim and his small company of men, one of the Americans says something the Russians deem offensive, and they seemingly punch him without warning. The soldier asks “Why me?” and the guard responds with a weary “Vy you? Vy anybody?” (Vonnegut 32). This question seems to be asked by the narrator as a resigned plea to the uncaring cosmos for an answer to needless suffering. Billy Pilgrim’s answer comes in the form of the Tralfamadorian’s response when they “kidnap” him later in the novel: “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber? […] Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why,” as an abandonment of the concept of free will (Vonnegut 42). However, the myriad existential crises that Billy Pilgrim suffers due to lacking a sense of meaning later in the novel are evidence of Vonnegut’s assertion that most people must truly believe we have free will in order to find purpose in their lives.
Billy Pilgrim cares little for his family, career, or personal betterment. His purpose becomes that of informing the world of the Tralfamadorian’s refutation of free will and embrace of determinism. This very listlessness and apathetic approach to life is exactly what Vonnegut is warning us against at the pursuit of a society that resigns itself to determinism. Vonnegut’s portrayal of Billy Pilgrim as an ineffectual passive bystander lacking any type of resolve furthers his argument that we must act as if we have free will rather than determinism to lead meaningful lives. After first being confronted with the Tralfamadorian’s revelation that reality is “determined”, Billy Pilgrim confronts the aliens with the very same ethical question that Vonnegut is attempting to provide an answer to. He questions the moral implications of being conscious of a harmful outcome, yet taking no discernable action against it by asking the Tralfamadorians that “If you know [that the Universe will be destroyed by a Tralfamadorian pilot who presses a button],” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”” The Tralfamadorians respond with great and inviolable confidence that “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way” (Vonnegut 48). While this response contains a minefield of loaded ethical dilemmas, we will focus on one: that of allowing determinism to erode our moral frameworks and behaviors. Billy Pilgrim succumbed to the kind of moral malaise that Vonnegut was worried would occur if humans embraced determinism and forfeited their natural desire to control aspects of their own lives. The best example of Billy Pilgrim’s resignation to becoming “unstuck” and “the forces that be” was towards the end of the novel, when he experienced the deaths of his wife and daughter, and was utterly powerless to prevent them. As he is once again abducted by the Tralfamadorians, he resigns himself to the “fact” that “among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future,” from which he derives the conclusion that “[he] didn’t really like life at all” (Vonnegut 54). Without choice and influence over one’s life, there is no purpose or meaning. We are simply drifters, swayed by the tides of time without agency, meandering to one uncontrollable outcome after another. Under Vonnegut’s existentialist philosophy, this is simply unacceptable, as happiness and all other human emotion- with the exception of apathy- derive from the pursuit of purpose.
I recognize that my argument is more complicated than its refutation, which violates Occam’s Razor. However, I will use evidence of Vonnegut’s conviction and the unconventional behavior of the characters to disprove the following claim. An argument against my interpretation of the text is that Vonnegut truly believed in determinism, and that is an assertion that one would make if they analyzed the text at a surface level, taking what the characters say verbatim and without looking for hidden meaning. Vonnegut was an avid humanist (Solomon 3), which is essentially incompatible with determinism as two of its main tenets are personal agency and the importance of individual decision making, which are necessary for a belief in free will. Given that his personal convictions were essentially closely related to a nondeterministic philosophy, I maintain a solid sense of doubtfulness that Vonnegut would write a novel about his “belief” in determinism, especially since the novel is autobiographical in nature at several distinct times throughout the novel. In addition, he shows that one of the myriad reasons that a predilection towards determinism forms is as a psychologically defensive maneuver in response to a traumatic event. Billy Pilgrim witnessed innumerable horrors during WW2, and his breaking point was most likely Edgar Derby’s death, on which he laments the lack of control he and his fellow soldiers have, reflecting in an uncharacteristically disjointed tone that “A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad” (Vonnegut 78). The unfairness of reality, and his perceived inability to change it in addition to the trauma he experienced as a soldier eventually result in the development of PTSD. As he begins to numbly accept this new reality, he posits that “if what [he] learned from the Tralfamadorians is true, that we will all live forever, no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed” (Vonnegut 81). In one of his many authorial intrusions on Billy Pilgrim’s narrative, Vonnegut remarks that he is not completely convinced that Billy Pilgrim’s time-travel trips are real. It seems that he is under the impression that they are a product of his PTSD as a coping mechanism to deal with the cultural and personal challenges that he faced after being discharged from the military. There is immense comfort in giving up personal agency to a benevolent entity and extricating yourself from responsibility, but the converse is very arguably worse. Vonnegut also seems to argue that if given reason to expect eternal longevity, we would become apathetic without any real drive to derive meaning from our existence. Time- or lack of it- and the unknowingness of how much we have left is such an integral part of why we strive towards purpose, achievement, and human connection, that without it, we forfeit that which makes us human. Slaughterhouse-Five is essentially a thought experiment on the importance of time and belief in our intrinsic ability to determine the outcomes of our existence to our desire for self-betterment and the pursuit of meaning. It is quite clear that Vonnegut intended for his novel to be a demonstration of why a philosophical acceptance and resignation to determinism is harmful to society writ large.
In conclusion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five diverged from similarly themed novels of the contemporary American postmodern literary era in that it approached determinism as a given, but proposed the novel idea that a belief in the illusion of free will is requisite in order to live morally structured, purposeful lives. His peculiar characterization of Billy Pilgrim reflected the nature of this thought experiment in that Billy Pilgrim was Vonnegut’s example of what he believed acceptance of determinism would look like- namely, listless, apathetic, and aimless. Vonnegut structured Billy Pilgrim’s belief in determinism as a coping mechanism for the PTSD he developed from the horrors he witnessed in WW2 in order to display his assertion that a belief in free will, while an infinitely more difficult pursuit, is worthwhile in its achievement as it is not simply a reaction to events, but rather a definitive objective for personal growth. Believing in free will is not just a philosophical predilection for academics with time to spare, but a serious moral conundrum that I too argue that we are better off believing in. The concept of the “American Dream” relies on it- the ardent faith that we can become self-made and achieve as much as we want to as a product of our work regardless of our station or start in life. Trust in our ability to overcome the determinism of our environments and genetics to be the authors of our own destinies is necessary for morally responsible behaviors and our own personal faith in our selves. When people believe that they have no control over their actions, that they are not “free agents”, they perceive themselves as unable to be blameworthy for the products of their actions, which naturally results in a greater predilection to succumbing to instinctual desires and baser instincts (Vohs and Schooler). At a more personal level, believing that free will is an illusion leads to decreased levels of societal creativity, greater conformation, and less gratefulness. I don’t condone suggesting that we should believe in an outright falsehood, but, as Professor Saul Smilanksy of the University of Haifa suggests, “we cannot afford for people to internalize the truth”. To some, this may sound like a gratuitous attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too. And in a way it is. It is an attempt to retain the best parts of the free-will belief system while ditching the deleterious. President Obama — who has both defended “a faith in free will” and argued that we are not the sole architects of our fortune — has had to learn what a fine line this is to tread. Yet it might be what we need to rescue the American dream — and indeed, many of our ideas about civilization, the world over — in the scientific age.
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Revision Narrative — A Personal Reflection
My primary source remained the same throughout the whole writing process, and I had a general idea of what I wanted to discuss that was somewhat consistent. However, the specifications changed quite a bit from my first draft to my final submission. At first, I wanted to tackle the topic of free will in general, but I realized that it was too broad an outlook for the scope and length of this paper. Then I transitioned to a thesis that was focused on PTSD and how Vonnegut treated it differently from his peer writer. I realized that this argument was quite weak and uninteresting to me, so I merged the two arguments together to craft a thesis that discussed determinism within the framework of Vonnegut’s characterization (i.e. PTSD et al).
I think the main issue I tried to rectify throughout the writing process was formulating a clear, concise thesis that was specific in nature. In addition to that, I needed to synthesize the evidence at three different levels, which was quite challenging for me. I’m glad that I got feedback on the broad perspective of my thesis, as this paper would not have been feasible if I had not specified the argument. Additionally, my “editor” suggested that I explain many of the terms that I was using, which was very helpful, as it is not wise to assume the reader is always cognizant of the terminology.
One of the strengths of my paper was the nature of the argument. Personally, I feel that my assertion was interesting, and hopefully the reader is able to engage with it as much as I did. I think a significant weakness of my paper was the scope of my primary text in relation to the length of this paper. I think that I may have discussed my argument too broadly as a result of that.
If I was to do this project again, I would spend more time on my argument on the analysis of evidence in my body paragraphs. I would work on deepening the connection between my primary source and the implications of the argument. And as always, I want to work on how to be wrong (no, not in the literal sense), and how to better myself for it. I want to work on my presuppositions, because I’m scared of how my expectations influence my perception. But who knows. Maybe I’m not quite as much the chooser of my own fate, the god of my own reality, the author of my own destiny, as I believe myself to be. Maybe I’m not in control at all. Well, so it goes.